Books About TV

As a way to combine my interests in television and books, here are my reviews of three books about television.

Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV (Brian Stelter, Grand Central Publishing)

Top of the Morning is an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the battle for dominance between the Today show and Good Morning America. Other morning shows including CBS This Morning and MSNBC’s Morning Joe are mentioned, but the Today/GMA rivalry gets most of the coverage.

I got sucked into the drama but could have done without all the silly metaphors (“the only couch in America that could itself get a mid-six-figure book deal”; “The gap was now NASCAR-speedway-size, not football-stadium-size.”)

While the book presents a comprehensive history dating back to the launch of Today in 1952, the focus is on “Operation Bambi”: the bungled outster of Ann Curry from the Today anchor chair. I couldn’t stand watching Curry’s uncomfortable banter and numerous blunders, but she was the sacrificial lamb (Lamb Curry? Sorry, I couldn’t resist) for Today’s falling ratings…which weren’t all her fault. Stelter’s take is that Matt Lauer may have wanted her out, but he didn’t push her out. The real masterminds were NBC producers and executives. Lauer took the heat because he’s the public figure.

The book also delves into Robin Roberts’ very public battle with myelodysplastic syndromes, a result of her treatment for breast cancer years earlier. The way she juggled her professional duties, helping GMA beatToday’s legendary 16-year ratings streak, with her personal trials was amazing. I guess next I’m going to have to read Everybody’s Got Something, Roberts’ memoir (also from Grand Central Publishing.)

Good Talk, Dad: The BIRDS and the BEES…and other CONVERSATIONS we FORGOT to have (Bill Geist and Willie Geist, Grand Central Publishing)

Speaking of morning television…this book was written by Bill Geist fromCBS Sunday Morning and his son Willie Geist who appears on Today andMorning Joe. It’s not really a book about TV, it’s about the relationship between a father and son who happen to work in TV. They also happen to have lived in my hometown of Ridgewood, NJ, and the book includes many amusing local references.

The day it was released I attended their signing at Bookends, our local independent bookstore that somehow attracts everyone from Clintons to Kardashians to its ugly, wood-paneled basement for author appearances. Their family and many former neighbors were in attendance, and I was struck by what nice, genuine people the Geists really seem to be. They come off that way in the book: very homespun yet quirky, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Bill’s work.

The anecdotes in the book are downright hilarious. It’s also poignant, delving into previously taboo subjects like Bill’s service in Vietnam and his struggles with Parkinson’s. It’s a fun read and a perfect Father’s Day gift.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country (Gabriel Sherman, Random House)

That’s a really long subtitle…and it’s a really interesting book about a really fascinating character. Ailes has been a political kingmaker, a media mogul, and even a Broadway producer. I might doubt the veracity of some of the stories if I didn’t know how spot-on chapter 9, “America’s Talking,” was. I was working at NBC Cable at the time and witnessed the Ailes cult of personality first hand. Loyalty was prized above all, as evidenced by the legions of staff members who followed him to Fox News.

The one accomplishment of this era that the book neglects to cover is the “Talk Search”: Ailes had the idea of conducting a nation-wide contest to find a host of one of the new America’s Talking shows. It was a brilliant PR stunt, and a reality competition show ahead of its time (the competition itself was not televised, but it should have been.) After the demise of America’s Talking the winner, Bill McCuddy, was an entertainment reporter at Fox News from 1996–2007 and is currently residing in the “where are they now?” file.

Ailes has proven that if you say something often enough, no matter how absurd it is, people will believe it. He’s used “Fair and Balanced” as a tagline for the most unfair and unbalanced news network on the air, helping it become #1 in ratings and profits. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny his influence on American politics and media.

Print: It’s Not Dead Yet

On Friday I attended the 15th annual BookExpo America (for my cable friends: it’s like NCTA, but with books.) In a world where authors are the rock stars, attendees (booksellers and librarians) stand in long lines for autographed copies…even when the author isn’t Christie Brinkley (who was promoting her upcoming book Timeless Beauty and looked fabulous, BTW.) We keep hearing that digital media is killing the printed word, but I believe reports of print’s demise are grossly exaggerated. Print and digital will continue to evolve but will co-exist, just as video maimed — rather than killed — the radio star, and streaming video won’t completely annihilate cable TV.

In 2010’s prescient Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart describes a not-so-distant future where printed books are dusty, musty relics of a bygone era used only by hopelessly uncool old people. Trying to avoid becoming a hopelessly uncool old person myself, I made the switch from mostly physical books to mostly e-books when I got an iPad Mini. I do most of my reading on the train commuting to work. I can take an entire library with me effortlessly on my Mini, or lug around a heavy print book that takes up half of the space in my bag.

In general I’m happy with the digital reading experience, although I just read I Am Malala (I give it 5 stars!) and kept wishing there was a glossary of the Pashtun terms that I didn’t understand. Guess what? There was a glossary, but it was at the end so I didn’t see it until I had finished the book. It would have been smart to put the glossary up front or, better yet, to hyperlink the words to their definitions.

Despite the convenience of digital books I’ve tried to keep printed books as my kids’ primary reading source for a number of reasons. They get enough screen time playing games and watching videos so it’s good to give their brains a break. And I want them to have an appreciation for the value of books, which is more difficult when a “book” is just a digital file. When Jack’s Sports Illustrated Kids arrives it’s also available on the iPad. But he likes to flip through the print magazine, read and re-read it, and tear out posters. I gave Natalie a copy of Animal Tales magazine and she loved it, tearing out pictures of cute animals that now adorn her bedroom walls. You can’t do that with digital. All of the middle schoolers in my town will be getting a Chromebook next year (high school students already have them) so it will be interesting to see how Jack’s relationship with printed books changes.

According to GeekWire, “Paper is back…’real’ books are on the rebound.” Paper book sales increased 2.4% last year, selling better than they have since ebooks took off in 2010. “The paper tome apparently hit rock bottom in 2012, but has since rallied in categories from children’s books to adult non-fiction, and formats from trade paperback to hardcover.” My client Hachette Book Group announced that in 2014 digital sales (ebooks and downloadable audio) represented 30% of net sales, compared to 33% in 2013. It may not seem like it when you see all the Kindles and iPads, but print is up and digital is down.

While Amazon has taken a wrecking ball to brick-and-mortar bookstores, there are signs of life there, too. As reported in the Publisher’s Weekly Show Daily, the number of independent bookstores has actually GROWN for the sixth year in a row. There are people who really want to go into a bookstore and browse rather than ordering their books with their toilet paper and TV shows. The shuttering of Borders in 2011 and the continuing closings of Barnes & Noble locations have left a real void for indies to fill.

What about newspapers? I’ve been reading The New York Times on the app on my Mini. I love the cleanliness factor: no dirty fingers from newsprint! The only catch is that I have to remember to open it up while I’m still in my Wifi-connected house. Once I do so it downloads immediately (a marked improvement over the last year or so.) The digital version can also be a richer experience. One day I was reading the food section on the Times app, sitting next to my father who was reading the print edition. In a piece about sandwiches he saw a couple of still photographs; I got interactive sandwiches that jumped apart to reveal images and additional information about the individual ingredients. As far as I can figure out, there are only two reasons we still get the print version: my husband likes the crossword puzzle (let’s be honest, Honey…we’re talking Monday and Tuesday…Wednesday, tops) and the plastic wrappers it comes in make great poop bags for dog walking. I don’t think those are user benefits The New York Times Company can bank on.

The Times is poised to hit 1 million digital subscribers this summer. Half of its digital readers now come from mobile. The average daily print circulation is 625,951; Sunday circ is about 1.3 million. It’s truly the best of times and the worst of times at the Times. Falling profits have meant the layoffs of many valuable long-term employees. But I have faith that the brand will adapt and survive. The Times was one of three news sources recommended by the instructor of a Social Media class I took recently, who is barely in her twenties; the other two being Mashable and Digiday. Her point was that to be an effective social media manager you need to know everything that’s going on in the world, and a general news source like the Times is the best way to keep up on a wide range of topics. Her assumption is that you’ll be consuming that content digitally, of course.

Nothing beats digital for immediacy. You can’t stay current by reading day-old news, or two week-old news in the case of The New York Times Book Review. It drives me crazy that they can’t figure out a way to print that thing closer to its distribution date. We hear about what movie was #1 at the weekend box office on Monday, but the bestseller lists are two weeks old by the time they arrive at our doorstep.

So put me firmly in the camp of preferring digital to print newspapers. When it comes to magazines, however, I still appreciate both formats. I love New York magazine and was saddened when it reduced its publication schedule from weekly to bi-monthly. I haven’t made the switch to digital partly because I don’t have Internet access during my commute. So until we get Wifi on NJ Transit, I’m stuck. I know New York magazine’s website has a lot of good digital content but I never seem to have the time to check it out. When I’m at work I’m working (crazy, I know) and when I’m at home I’m parenting; if I have any time to relax I watch TV the old fashioned way — on a TV. Plus, we need print magazines to occupy us at doctor’s offices and nail salons!

Print is cool again, and media brands known for their video or digital content are jumping on the bandwagon. Cable’s ID (Investigation Discovery) Network is distributing a series of true-crime special reports starting this summer. You can get the first issue, Women Who Kill, for $9.99 at a newsstand near you. Even tech website CNET went back to the future and launched a print magazine last November.

It all boils down to a matter of personal preference. Whether it’s on the printed page or on a digital device, keep reading. And thank you for reading Issue #2 of Thinking Out Laub.